Cover Story: Opinov8 Co-Founders
Cover Stories
13 April 2021
Cover Story: Opinov8 Co-Founders
Cover Stories
13 April 2021

Do you know how to create a company with over 200 employees all over the world from a bold idea starting above a garage? We can definitely say that we know now 😀

Meet Opinov8 Co-Founders: Craig Wilson, Chief Commercial Officer, and Christian Aaen, Chief Technology, Delivery & Operations Officer. Even though their daily tasks are very diverse, they are good friends and they built an even gr8er company together. They told us about Opinov8's first steps and how it all started. 

Are you curious to read a bunch of exciting moments they've collected over the years? Find out the story behind Opinov8 and get to know a little more about the personalities of the founders in this article!

Kyiv office 2019

How did you come up with the idea to start Opinov8? 

Craig Wilson (CW): I remember that moment when we discussed the whole concept. It was in the Holiday Inn. We spoke about doing something different from what we were doing before.

Opinov8 means having an opinion on innovation. Both of us have very strong opinions! So having an opinion on innovation was the core of what we wanted to do. We wanted to have an opinion on building products or platforms for our clients. Not just be sitting back waiting to take instruction to build software on demand. Being a Technology Innovation partner, using our company as a platform for our clients.

Christian Aaen (CA): We had the belief that the market needed a bit of a holistic approach to what traditionally has been known as “outsourcing”. We wanted to set business objectives at the center of the client relationship and build from there. Even though we are a technology services company, we do look at technology, as an enabler. We believe it has to be the business that drives the technology solution and technology implementation.

We had a belief that the market would be better served with a technology services company that puts business objectives at the core.

Craig Wilson near the Olympic stadium in Kyiv

Why did you choose Ukraine as one of the main countries for your office?

(CW): Well, it was a natural choice. Christian lives in Kyiv and we have both worked with and in the Ukrainian market for a long time. Things are obviously changing currently with the world situation as it is, and we will continue to push out, but Ukraine remains our center of gravity.

(CA): The reason why I ended up in Ukraine is obviously because of well-skilled engineers and an accommodating culture quite close to what I know from growing up in Western Europe. Those two points remain to be very strong reasons for our continued commitment to Ukraine!

Tell us about your first steps at Opinov8, what was the path you took to get to where you are today?

(CA): Our first steps at Opinov8 started in April 2017. We actually started where I'm sitting now, above the garage. Yes, like Google (laughing). This is the place where the first couple of steps were taken. 

As with many startups, it starts with “3 F’s” friends, family, and fools, and this story is no different. Our very first client was a friend. So the very first code line that we wrote was a deal from a close network. 

As we've been so many years in the business and in the industry we have a good network. The network we have cherished and built up over many years. We have almost broken our backs to not disappoint. So, yes, a good network is really what got us going. 

We saw it as an opportunity to start on a blank piece of paper. Through those many years within the industry and within larger organizations, we saw the impact of older on premise legacy business support systems that couldn’t really keep up with running at scale in a fast changing business environment. We didn’t need to worry about legacy slowing us down, we could take full advantage of cloud service infrastructure and applications and build a foundation that could grow as fast as we can grow the business.

Winter Party 2020

You are bound to run into trouble if you are not thinking through the entirety of the business (not only the business model but also the operating model). You need to have long-term strategic glasses on and you need to be bold

We looked at this and we said to each other: “In five years, we need to build a company that will be able to manage 40% of our people working remotely”. That was built into our thinking, into investments, into systems and processes from the beginning. Little did we know that 3 years later in 2020, one Monday evening in March, it would be 100%... But that's history.

We had an opportunity to do things right — without legacy — and we were quite excited about it!

Also, the fact that we wanted to build an organization that could scale and function so that there was no single point of failure, which you tend to have if everything revolves around one central point or person.

(CW): I remember sitting with Christian in the summer, drawing on a piece of paper, thinking about our branding and the positioning. 

We were thinking about one of the things that we saw in our previous roles. From a cultural perspective, the culture of the organization was tied to the leadership. The world and the company revolved around them, there was a whole ecosystem around them. We definitely didn't want that, we wanted to be able to operate in the business, but also operate out of the business, not have a detrimental, or negative effect on the company, for the company to BE the culture and the people in it

We came up with our core six principles when we were sitting on a terrace in the sunshine one day. Those are still as true today as they were then. They were the first set of steps. We wanted to create a cultural identity for the organization, something to attach to. As much as the systems and processes are important, just as important was our cultural identity when we started.

Craig Wilson and Christian Aaen

(CA): We had very entertaining conversations starting, of course, very informal for quite a while. The “final drop” was when both Craig and I were a part of getting big private equity into the company where we worked. That was a bit of a mental milestone.

We also both had working experiences in organizations that spend a lot of time looking inwards, looking at their own belly button, having competing interests within the organization. Such behavior drives focus away from the market dynamics and responding to what clients and the market demands. We are trying hard every day to enforce focus on the things that matter for the success of opinov8rs and our clients. The aim is obviously to have this approach and philosophy reflected in our company DNA and how we organize ourselves.

What was the hardest part in the early stages of the company’s growth?

(CW): The hardest part in the early stages is that you absolutely live and breathe every step you take. In our approach, every challenge is completely personal and emotional. 

It's not a job. This is your family, this is your future, this is your universe. 

Anything that goes wrong (and lots of things do go wrong) you take personally. You take personal pride in making sure that they don't happen again.

There are lots of things that were hard. Growing a company is not easy, finding the right people is not easy, keeping the right people is not easy. I think there are lots of challenges that you have to overcome on a day-to-day basis, and they're still relevant today.

(CA): Also, finding the right partners to collaborate with can prove to be a challenge! You do tend to take everything personally, and everything and anything matters. It's getting a little bit easier now because we now have a sizable team of capable people to help “grab challenges”. 

But in the beginning, it was hard, it's everything from the toilet paper to delivery, full-cycle 😉

Friday evening in the Kyiv office, 2020

What have been the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome?

(CW): I think one of the biggest challenges that we've had to overcome jointly, was when COVID hit last year. We had to, unfortunately, say goodbye to some very smart people. 

At the same time, we sold our activities in Spain. That allowed us to focus our attention. We were testing our strategy, and then very quickly pushing forward again. The biggest challenge was getting through that process. Those were very tough days.

(CA): But it helped us to realize that we have built an organization where our leading people have been with us through all these hard times (and good times for that matter). We got to know each other better. Trust is built, because when the shit hits the fan, the way that people react, says a lot about their character.

It wasn't just us, as business owners, who sat and looked at our entire foundation for feeding our families, were in jeopardy, the money and time that we've invested. I think everyone in the company had a hard time. But as I said, working through that has built more trust and that is, of course, something that we can further build on.

My sister once said to me: “the sum of problems is always the same”. I think there's a lot of truth to that. I'm still worried about a lot of things, but they don't feel as fundamental and life-threatening, as they did back in the middle of March - early April last year.

One of those reasons is, of course, that we have built a team that cares about our company, like we do, which is so gr8!

What are you most proud of regarding the company? What do you think makes Opinov8 different?

(CW): We're proud of a lot of things. I’m proud of the fact that we support and nurture over 200 people and their families. I am proud of the people.

Proud that they have chosen us to be part of their journey

I've seen a lot of individual people in the organization grow and do amazing things, I'm proud of that.

We are fighting like Mike Tyson, we are still very small and relatively unknown. But we can be a heavyweight when we get into a client engagement, and we have done things for clients that 10 million companies “like us” will not be able to do. And I'm proud of that. 

We have a lot of ability and talent. And that's what makes us different. It is that very ability of innovators, to bring their own opinion, exactly that additional 10%. Something more than just being a developer. The way that they think is the freedom they get through the philosophy and our systems and processes. Their ability to have some wiggle room when doing their job. That's what makes us different, and brings that extra value — our secret sauce!

We are not rigid in our controls. However, our systems are very structured, consistent, but there is a lot of space for people to be creative. That is where our added value is. 

So, the ability to give people freedom within the structures makes us different. I'm proud of that.

Celebration of 100 Opinov8rs in a team in the Kyiv office

(CA): Yeah, I totally agree. As the German American economist Theodore Levitt famously said “Organizations exist to enable ordinary people to do extraordinary things”. So it's about combining people and skills in a way that allows individuals to have more impact than individual contribution. That's the environment that we believe we have managed to create.

The other thing is that we're honest, which may sound a bit strange. We're not perfect. We are people, we don't try to hide it. We deal with issues with clients, and we fix problems out in the open. That makes us authentic, I think. That's also what makes us different. And that's also quite something to be proud of.

We don't want people to over-commit and under-deliver. But when we commit, we do whatever it is we can do to meet the commitment we have made! That's not just towards clients, but also towards our people. So we do what we say and we say what we do. This actually sounds very basic, but it is our core belief.

Did you like this Cover Story? To read the second part of the story with Opinov8 Co-Founders, download it here 👇

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